Three Plays, by August Wilson, with an afterword by Paul Carter Harrison
Having read two of the three plays in this particular collection before, I came to this book looking to enjoy the play that I had not read before, which I did even if it was a rather sobering one. There are occasions where more is less, and where less would have been better, and that is certainly the case here. I happen to think that Wilson’s plays generally can stand on their own pretty easily. Even without a deep interest in African cultural tropes, Wilson’s plays are not particularly subtle about their messages and about the threads of connection that run through them. One does not need to be a fan of intersectionality or proficient with African studies departments to be able to understand what Wilson is getting at when he shows the murderous rage of people who all too often target their fellow black brethren rather than those who have truly taken advantage of them, and that is certainly the case here. Wilson invests the black lives of his plays with almost Shakespearean pathos, and tragedy is never far from the surface in these plays and in the other ones I have read by the author.
By and large this book delivers on the promise of giving three plays by a capable American playwright. A preface allows the playwright the opportunity to talk about his own life in drama and some of the important connections he made that allowed him to tell the stories he wanted to say in his century saga. After that comes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a two-act play set in Chicago (most of his century saga is set in Pittsburgh) where the injustices of black life seethe in passionate blues and where violence and exploitation are omnipresent. Ma Rainey shows up late to a recording session because she has been dealing with racist cops, and meanwhile her band is struggling over the arrangements of her songs and their own desire to receive credit for creativity. A frustrating experience of the studio owners’ exploitation leaves one of the characters violently hostile to one of the fellow musicians whom he kills in sudden finality, showing a great deal of similarity with the course of “Seven Guitars,” another great play in the cycle. Also included here are Fences and Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, both of which are excellent plays that I have read and viewed elsewhere, as well as an afterword.
And it is really the afterword that detracts somewhat from the value of this particular book. This book would have been a far better one had the plays been allowed to speak for themselves, but some African studies “scholar” felt it necessary to add an afterword full of contemporary identity political jargon that seeks to demonstrate his own intellect and his own mastery of the thieves’ cant of contemporary academia. Really, the afterword serves no useful purpose and instead will likely annoy or confuse those readers who do not share the political view of the writer. That said, when one removes the afterword this book is a worthwhile selection of plays from a great playwright and one whose views about black on black violence as well as the pervasive feeling of exploitation in dealings with wider society are not subtle in the least. Whether one agrees with the perspective of the author, the playwright makes compelling plays that show a great deal of continuity throughout the 20th century and that feature compelling characters and gripping drama, and that is all one can ask for from drama like this.